by Terry Davis —
An in-game standing ovation by Grizzlies fans at FedExForum signaled the recognition of Ja Morant’s selection as an All-Star Game starter.
“Sorry for not acting on it (the ovation), I was locked in,” said Morant. “I felt like I was playing kind of bad at the start of the game, not finishing layups, etc. I was focused on the game, locked in. I appreciate everybody cheering for me, but in that moment, I felt like I needed to win; I had to get that.”
Memphis (34-17) got the win (119-110) over Utah (30-2) as the Grizzlies tightened their grip on third place in the Western Conference and ahead of the fourth-place Jazz.
In the first game following his All-Star selection, Morant recorded a triple-double: 30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists. As has been the case in Memphis’ blooming as a top team this season, he had ample help.
Jaren Jackson Jr., who ranks second in the league in blocked shots per game, finished with 18 points and 6 rejections, becoming the first player to block at least six shots in consecutive games since Anthony Davis in 2014.
Brandon Clarke had a season-high 22 points off the bench, Desmond Bane (who had missed several games) scored 17 points, with 13 from De’Anthony Melton, also working his way back into the lineup after a several-game absence.
While getting the win was paramount, Morant’s All-Star selection generated buzz before, during and after the game. The team and staff saluted him with a pregame surprise that unfolded as Morant parked in the garage.
“I was backing in and Jaren (Jackson Jr.) pulled up. Normally he will sit in his car and play his last song, then come in the arena. Instead, he hopped out of the car and started running. I hopped out and (was) just walking; he was screaming something. I could not tell you what he was screaming, I do not know. I had seen everybody, and I was shook.”
Morant called the previous 24-hours “big time” and much needed in that he got to see his family.
“Getting the All-Star starting nod and being with them when my name was called, obviously was something I wanted to do, to be able to do and I was able to do that. Thankful for the organization letting me be able to go spend time with my grandma. Coming back, I was the same Ja as before the announcement was made; go out and prove myself try to win the game.”
Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins was at home with his family when the All-Star starter selections were announced.
“As soon as they announced the guards, it was Steph Curry (and) everyone was on pins and needles. I yelled out ‘yes, yes, yes’ multiple times. I’m so proud of Ja and so proud of this team,” said Jenkins.
“Ja’s work has gotten him to this point and gotten him this accomplishment and recognition, but to put one of your own into the All-Star Game is very special. For me, as a head coach, to have one of our players in the All-Star Game for the first time is a testament to him and this team.”
Morant scored Memphis’ first four points in the first quarter, which ended with the Grizzlies a point ahead (31-30). Memphis outscored Utah by 7 in the second quarter, taking an 8-point lead into halftime. At that juncture, Morant had 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists.
In the third quarter, Morant kept rolling (8 points, 4 assists). Three of his assists were to Clarke, who had 10 points in the quarter – mostly crowd-pleasing dunks. Memphis led 88-78 at the end of three, with the teams each scoring 31 points in the final quarter.
Utah was led by Danuel House Jr. with 21 points off the bench. The game against the Jazz featured the return of two former Grizzlies and fan favorites – Rudy Gay (7 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists) and Mike Conley Jr. (15 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds).
Conley noted the strides the Grizzlies have made since last season.
“Maturity is a factor,” said Conley. “Them getting a taste of the playoffs last season carried over into the summer. Ja playing at the same level he did in the playoffs. Jaren is playing better down the line. Everyone on the team has fed off one another. Steven Adams has been a big reason too. They are well-rounded and well-coached. They are going to be a tough team.”
In the second game of a back-to-back, the Grizzlies host the Washington Wizards (23-25), with tipoff set for 7 p.m.